Phuket: not as bad as I thought

I felt quite emotional leaving Khok Kloi at the end of my second week’s teaching. Not only had the afternoons been relaxing and luxurious, with excellent food, beautiful surroundings and great company, but I had also thoroughly enjoyed teaching at Wat Sri. I felt very privileged to have gained an insight into Thai daily life from people with a point of view completely removed from the tourism industry.

During my time in Thailand so far I had become quite used to being in small towns, relaxed and easy to navigate, and as I waited for the bus to Phuket I tried to mentally prepare myself for a completely different kind of experience. After the end of teaching I had been dropped off on the side of the highway on the edge of town and instructed to wave my hand up and down when I saw a bus coming. As I waited, with no idea how long I’d have to wait, I idly considered that it might not be such a terrible thing to have to stay a few more days, but the bus turned up in a few minutes and I was on my way.

I had three days until I needed to be in Kuala Lumpur and would have happily bypassed Phuket, having heard one too many stories of sleaze and tacky decadence, but my friend Jamie was there so I decided to put my preconceptions to the test and headed to Patong Beach, Phuket’s main party town.

As it turned out, it wasn’t as seedy and crass as I had feared, and I developed a kind of love hate relationship with the town. Although it only has around 20,000 inhabitants, it felt (and smelt) like a city, which I found quite overwhelming after the previous three weeks, and it certainly lacked the charm of Khao Lak. A main road runs along the seafront, almost drowning out the sound of the waves, and the beach was packed, with sun loungers and people selling food and gifts on the sand, and parasailers, jet skis and boats in the water. It is essentially pretty much what I was expecting from a Thai resort town before I came to Thailand, and before I was spoilt by Khao Lak and Natai beaches. It’s not a relaxing, ‘wander along the shore contemplating life’ place to be, but you can order food and drinks without leaving your sun lounger. Although it feels a little removed from Thai culture, but on the other hand there was plenty to see wandering around, including a nice market and some nice shops, and the Thai people I met just as friendly and cheerful as everyone else I’d met. I found it perfectly easy to avoid the seedy party street of Bangla Road, and never felt uncomfortable walking around, although, as Jamie pointed out, he had a very different experience walking around with me compared to being alone or with a group of men.

I had a free day to myself while Jamie was busy on his course, and as I felt like I’d done enough beach relaxing for the time being, I took a day trip to the Phi Phi Islands, famous for inspiring the Alex Garland novel The Beach and generally being beautiful. And the islands were stunning; dramatic limestone cliffs rising out of the sea, colourful caves and dribbly stalactites, and the snorkeling was good too. The only problem I had was the tour itself, although I probably should have known better. It was a day trip designed for people who wanted to say that they had ‘done’ the Phi Phi Islands; the speedboat takes the thirty or so punters from beach to beach, where you have a few minutes to take some pictures before you’re herded back on the boat. Apart from snorkeling, which less than half of the group took part in, there were no activities, and no information about the islands’ history or geography or anything was offered. It’s not that I dislike doing ‘tourist’ stuff – I was perfectly happy with a tour group in Myanmar – it’s just that I don’t understand the point of a tour that doesn’t offer either some kind of physical activity or the chance to learn something.

During the tour, as well as walking around Patong, I was struck by the demographic or the tourists. I had expected to see lots of Australians, Europeans, and maybe some Americans, but I was surprised to hear that the biggest tourist nationality was now Chinese, followed by Russians. This was evidenced in the shops and restaurants, where signs were almost always translated into these languages as well as English, and in the markets where the traders spoke all three languages.

On my final evening in Thailand I got a local minibus shuttle to Phuket Bus Station, and from there an overnight bus to Hat Yai. It was a ‘VIP’ bus, meaning the seats where huge with lots of space to recline, and I slept very well until I arrived in Hat Yai at 5am. From there I took a truly terrifying motorbike taxi to the pickup point for my bus to Kuala Lumpur, and got to the Malaysian border around 11am. Part of me had expected to find Thailand a little jaded, cynical maybe, after so much intense tourism development over the last 25 years, but I found the friendly and good-humoured people, gorgeous landscapes, and the best food I’ve ever had. From fancy pants restaurants to street stalls, I didn’t have a single bad meal in Thailand, and I didn’t even think I liked Thai food that much.

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Living the life of luxury in Khok Kloi

The day before we started teaching, Barbara, Mark and I had taken a tuk-tuk to the town of Khok Kloi, an hour south of Khao Lak. The towns could hardly be more different; while Khao Lak was essentially created for the tourism industry, Khok Kloi developed as a cross roads town and bus station, with Phuket to the south, Ao Phang Nga to the east, and Khao Lake to the north; Khao Lak was full of hotels and restaurants, and on first glance Khok Kloi seemed to have nothing at all for tourists. Until we found Natai Beach.

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Natai Beach

When I was working in Lake Louise as a hotel receptionist, the most irritating review of the Lake, which I heard repeatedly during the summer months, was “it’s very nice, if only there weren’t so many people”. My response was always a thin, apologetic smile and a “yes, it does get very busy at this time of year”, but what I really wanted to ask these people was; “how exactly did you find out about Lake Louise?” Did you read about it in a book or a magazine? Maybe a TV programme? Or maybe it’s one of those places in the world that you’ve always been aware of in a vague kind of way, like Timbuktu or Niagara Falls. This wouldn’t be surprising, considering Lake Louise is one of Canada’s top tourist destinations and one of the world’s most photographed places, and so, random hotel guest, what exactly made you think your decision to visit was so unique that you expected to come here in the height of summer and have the place to yourself? The idea that millions of people have heard about the same places as them, and that some of them even decide to go there on the very same day! The arrogance of it astounded me every time.

So I have no sympathy when people complain about there being lots of people at well-known, beautiful destinations, especially during the high season, but on the other hand it is undeniably satisfying when you come across a place that is beautiful, relaxing and almost completely empty. And this is exactly what we found at Natai Beach, a few kilometres from Khok Kloi, when we visited after our first morning at school. We asked our driver, who drove us to and from school each day, to take us to the beach, hoping to find a good spot to enjoy the beach. Barbara and Mark told me how they like to find a beach-front resort with a pool and walk in with confidence as if they’re staying there and enjoy the amenities, taking care to spend some money at the bar. They tend to blend in with the hotel guests, they said, and if anyone realises that they aren’t guests they don’t usually mind as long as they are spending some money. We strode into Ranyatavi, the first resort we came to, and I followed their lead as we asked nonchalantly where the pool was and were led through a maze of bungalows and small villas. Arriving at the beach-front pool with a bar next door, it became clear that we would struggle to blend in; the place was completely deserted. It was pretty obvious that we weren’t guests at the hotel, but the staff didn’t seem to mind, and we contented ourselves that they couldn’t refuse our business at the bar if this was what two o’clock on an afternoon in the high season looked like.

The beautiful soft white sand beach was just as empty as the hotel, and as I walked along I started to understand why. Stretching for about 10km either side of Natai pier, a spot for anglers and fishing boats, and the beach was edged with modern, pristine villas and a few expensive-looking boutique hotels. The villas were either private holiday homes or were rented out for exclusive beach getaways, and it looked like exactly the kind of place the super-famous would go to escape recognition. A bit more research showed that the beach was home to a restaurant with a Michelin star chef and right next door to what we came to think of as ‘our’ resort, an American-built glass and chrome mansion currently owned by a Russian oligarch.

I can only assume that Natai manages to maintain it’s exclusivity because, driving through Khok Kloi, you would have absolutely no reason to think there was anything luxurious or tourist-orientated in this part of the coast. The town itself as one restaurant (the excellent Bo’s Café), no taxi service, and one hotel; the comfortable but very basic Nest Villa, our base for the fortnight. It was a pragmatic town with pragmatic shops; mechanics and motorbike showrooms, homeware and electricals shops, and a Tesco Lotus and a few minimarts. There is no real demand for a taxi service, since the luxury villas for hire came with a minibus and driver included, as well as a maid and cook, and the resorts had their own overpriced and barely used taxis.

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Khok Kloi

The three of us quickly got into the habit of finishing at school at 1:30, after four hours’ work and an hour for lunch, coming straight to the beach and relaxing and swimming in the pool, having dinner at Ranyatavi, then getting a ride home from our hotel owner’s mate who happened to own a car. As work routines go, it was pretty luxurious. On the final evening of our first week we strolled along the beach to Aleenta, a smart luxury resort with square glass villas and private pools, for cocktails and a fancy dinner. For the price of a Domino’s pizza I had gorgeously presented halibut ceviche and pork belly washed down with a mojito on a peaceful terrace looking onto the sea. During our meal we got talking to Billy, the impeccably mannered restaurant assistant manager, who invited us to the ‘Manager’s Cocktail Reception’ the following Tuesday. Happy to go to anything for a free drink we attended, and mingled with the guests, drinking cosmopolitans, eating canapés and avoiding questions about where we were staying. I felt like a student sneaking into a fancy party, but it was fun to pretend I belonged in such an opulent environment. It felt a little jarring though, spending the day teaching children who clearly came from poor backgrounds, and living a life of luxury in the evening.

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Another sunset

Volunteer Teacher Thailand

The day after returning from my scuba diving course, I went to the Volunteer Teacher Thailand office for orientation. There I met Ken Hyde, the organisation’s founder, and his assistant Sunny, as well as my teaching partners for the next two weeks, Barbara and Mark from San Francisco. Recently retired and enjoying some travels before deciding exactly what to do next, they really took me under their wing and were interesting and entertaining companions.

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Barbara, Mark and I

 

The Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 prompted volunteers from all over the world to travel to Khao Lak, among other places, and help with the clean-up programme. Once the essentials like shelter, food and water were reestablished, volunteer leaders looked to the local community to find out what else they needed, and the request they got was English teaching. Many of the Thai people killed in the tsunami worked in the tourist industry, and as the hotels and restaurants reopened, the supply of English speakers was being stretched. For this reason, Ken set up Volunteer Teacher Thailand and for the last ten years it has been supplying local schools with English speakers to teach, speak and generally create enthusiasm for English.

As the area has recovered, the project has developed a second motivation; to try to level the socioeconomic playing field for schoolchildren from poor backgrounds. The most common jobs in this part of Thailand are in the rubber processing and fishing industries, and in order to go to University or to get a well-paid job in the tourism industry, children must have a good level of English. However, the Thai teaching system is what some might see as old-fashioned, with a lot of talking from the teacher and a lot of quiet and writing from the students. This makes it difficult for struggling students to stay engaged, and many switch off completely and do not progress. Unlike better off parents, poorer people in the area cannot pay for after school tutors, or send their children to fee-paying schools who can employ specialist English teachers, which is where Volunteer Teacher Thailand comes in. Volunteers are sent to primary schools in rural and deprived areas to teach interactive lessons in line with the curriculum, to get everyone involved and hopefully foster an enthusiasm for learning English.

I was very interested to hear about all of this, but I left the orientation feeling pretty doubtful that I’d be a particularly good teacher – I wouldn’t say instilling enthusiasm in others is one of my natural skills – but I was looking forward to trying. I needn’t have worried though; on arriving at Wat Sriratanaram School on Monday morning it became clear very quickly that enthusiasm levels were not a problem; all of the children seemed very excited to see us. Mark, Barbara and I had agreed to teach one age group each with the other two supporting, and my P1/P2 class (aged around 6 to 8) was up first. I was teaching body parts and luckily I’d thought of doing ‘heads, shoulder, knees and toes’, which they already knew and absolutely loved. They were an energetic bunch who struggled to sit still and be quiet, but as long as the lessons were interactive, with lots of songs, actions and quizzing, we managed to keep their attention for most part.

The older groups, Barbara’s P3/P4 class (aged 8 to 10) and Mark’s P5/P6 class (aged 10 to 12) were a bit more studious and able to keep quiet, but they still enjoyed games and silliness; I got the impression that our lessons were ‘fun’ ones, where they were able to be more active and exuberant than they usually were, which was satisfying for us.

All the kids were good-natured and generally well-behaved, but I think my favourites were the nursery school class, who we had for an hour each morning. We didn’t have any lesson plans for this class and were told instead to just entertain them as best we could, which for us turned out to be singing songs, practicing the alphabet, doing colouring and, as we began to run out of ideas in the second week, playing Youtube videos on Barbara’s iPad. I was surprised how much I enjoyed these classes, as I’m not typically a huge fan of pre-school age children (or any children to be honest), but they were very cute, especially how they couldn’t quite get their heads around the fact that we couldn’t speak or understand Thai. And I was amazed how many songs came back to me once I started thinking about it, from ‘Incy Wincy Spider’ to ‘Round and Round the Garden’.

The teachers were very kind to us as well, particularly the P5/P6 teacher, Chi-At who spoke very good English. We were given a delicious lunch (and ice-cream!) every day, including a lunchtime trip to the local Buddhist monastery on our second day, and on our last day we had a little presentation and were given gifts by the headteacher. On our final evening in Khok Kloi we went out for dinner with Chi-At and his wife, a keen English speaker, and it was fascinating hearing their perspectives and stories.

So what did I make of my first experience of teaching? After the first day or two I felt that, although I was enjoying it, I wasn’t naturally comfortable standing at the front of a class; I thought that I wasn’t patient or charismatic or imaginative enough to hold the students’ attention, and I did find it quite draining (especially on the second Monday when I missed out on my morning coffee…). But by the end of the second week I had certainly grown in confidence and was much happier leading my class, and I was surprised how patient I could be. On the other hand, it would’ve been spectacularly hard work on my own, or even with one other teacher, and I was very glad to have Mark and Barbara’s support and good humour. I don’t have the natural temperament of a primary school teacher; even working our short days, from 8:30am to 1:30pm, I found it pretty draining and would’ve like more time to myself at lunchtime instead of being pestered by energetic children all the time. But I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, and while I wouldn’t choose it as a career, I’d certainly volunteer again in the future.

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Scuba diving in the Similan Islands

When I realised I’d have nearly a week to kill between finishing my tour in Myanmar and starting my volunteer work in Khao Lak, I thought about learning to scuba dive, very nearly chickened out in favour of snorkelling, but ended up taking a three-day PADI course to become a certified Open Water Diver.

Someone, who as it turns out didn’t know what they were talking about, once told me that scuba diving isn’t really worth the money and effort of learning, because you don’t see much more than in snorkelling and since you control your position in the water with an up/down button, it’s not really like proper swimming. Now that I’ve done both, I’d say although there are similarities in terms of the view, it’s a completely different kind of thrill to be not just looking down at the view, but inside the view, following the currents and really interacting (but not touching, obviously) with nature. As for the second point, while it’s true that there is a control on your kit to help control your buoyancy in the water, it doesn’t turn you into some kind of joystick-controlled submarine; you retain you full range of motion and swimming is most definitely necessary.

Khao Lak is a popular jumping off point for the Similan Islands National Park, one of Thailand and Southeast Asia’s top dive sites. Khao Lak’s main road boasts dozens of diving shops, offering courses, local dives and liveaboard trips to the islands, and there are also a couple of split-level training pools in the town. After watching the first set of training videos I spent the first day of my course at one of these pools with my instructor Cléo. I was lucky enough to be the only student in the class, and I spent the morning practising safety drills, answering multiple-choice quizzes and learning how all the gear works. Scuba divers wear what is basically an adjustable life jacket, with an air cylinder strapped to the back. The mouthpiece that you breath through is connected to the air cylinder, as is a spare air supply and a gauge telling you how much air you have left, and a fourth tube connects the air cylinder to your life jacket, or BCD (buoyancy control device), allowing you to inflate or deflate the BCD as necessary. It’s primarily used for descending and ascending, once you are swimming around you can just swim upwards or downwards as you please, using your breathing to control your buoyancy. Or that’s the theory at least – achieving neutral buoyancy, or hovering in the water, is a tricky skill to master and I’m still working on it.

That evening I watched a few more training videos and early the next morning I prepared for my first dive. The diving boat stays in the Similan Islands, an hour’s speedboat ride from Khao Lak, for the whole season, and each morning the speedboat brings divers and snorkellers across, of whom some stay just for the day and some stay aboard for one or more nights. My first dive was in a shallower area and I practised the same safety drills as the day before. The rest of the dive was spent swimming around looking at the stunning array of fish and marine life. Even at the relatively shallow level of 10 metres, I saw all kinds of wonderful things; it was like one of those big paintings that you look at and think ‘oh yeah, there’s quite a lot of people in that picture’, but then the closer you look the more detail your eye notices. It was almost too much to process, because there’s just so much going on all around you, from the small and camouflaged to the huge to ostentatious. One thing was for certain though, if I’m going to dive regularly I need to sit down and learn some fish species; saying ‘that big turquoise one’ half an hour later when you come back to the surface didn’t really give Cléo enough to go on.

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Diving boat

 

My package included six dives, but only four need to be assessed for certification, so I did my second assessed dive after lunch, and a fun dive (as if the others were a chore) towards sunset. As the day trippers left after the afternoon dive, I got a chance to really take in the beauty of the Similan Islands without the crowds. The chain of nine islands are formed of granite, with smooth weathered boulders forming unique shapes on the shore, like one boulder on island number eight which provides the area with the name of Donald Duck Bay. Two of the islands are off limits to divers as they are protected breeding places for green turtles in the area, but there are plenty of excellent dive sites around the other seven.

Spending the night on the boat with six other passengers, the boat boys and instructors allowed me, as well as getting dinner, breakfast and a comfy bunk in between, to get the know the crew and instructors better, and to find out more about the diving world. The next morning I did an early morning dive, and had a few hours to chill out before the speedboat arrived with the day’s daytrippers. I completed my final two dives and by the end of the day I was starting to get a little better at knowing what to focus on; over the six dives I went down to 18 metres and saw schools of tiny inquisitive silver-coloured fish, cutesy clownfish, big ugly groupers, a furtive octopus, a giant lobster, and lots of weird, prehistoric-looking, giant slug things. I’m still not great at names, but I’m getting better. And also by the end of the day, after completing my four assessed dives and passing the written exam the night before, I was a certified PADI Open Water Diver.

I expected to enjoy scuba diving but I wasn’t prepared to feel so inspired, due in no small part to Cléo, my instructor. As well as being an excellent teacher, she obviously loves being in the water and exploring the marine world. Her stories were inspiring, her enthusiasm was infectious and I can’t wait to dive again.

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Photo collage courtesy of Cléo

Khao Lak

The Khao Lak area is a succession of small towns clustered around a main road, highway 4, which runs up the Andaman Coast to Ranong. The road is sandwiched between sea and rainforest, with the steep slopes of Khaolak-Lumru National Park behind the town, and the long sandy beach about a kilometre from the road. My guidebook and my small amount of internet research left me with the impression of a quiet town with not a huge amount going on, and while that may be true in comparison with Krabi or Phuket, it’s still a popular tourist area, particularly amongst older European couples, mostly Swiss and German. The main road is full of restaurants, shops and day trip operators, while the beach front has the hotels, resorts and beach bars. It’s squarely aimed at the young families and older couples who want their home comforts and beach-front massages, without the party scene of Phuket, and it manages it with charm and authenticity.

The majority of visitors to the area spend their days either on day trips to nearby attractions like the Similan Islands, Khao Sok National Park and local waterfalls, or relaxing in their resorts and on the beach. This makes the town itself oddly quiet and empty during the day, but by late afternoon people start crawling out of the woodwork and by dinner time the many restaurants are busy but not packed.

Due to a bit of Google Maps confusion, my hostel turned out to be a couple of kilometres north of Khao Lak proper, in Bang Niang, a smaller and quieter but built along the same lines; the perfect place to relax for a few days and have some time to myself. For my first few nights I stayed at the Riverside Guesthouse, a small hotel with private rooms and a dormitory on the main road. The proprietress and the rest of the staff were very friendly (including a Burmese girl who admired my longyi), and they had a sweet little cafe and seating area looking out onto the road, which was great for people watching. Later on I stayed at Walker’s Inn, a larger place with a similar set-up but much bigger restaurant recommended by the head of Volunteer Teach Thailand (more of which later). Run by an Anglo-Thai couple, the restaurant served a nice range of Thai and ‘international’ food and more importantly was showing the tennis, so I got to watch the Australian Open semi-finals.

 

The beaches are sandy, beautiful and quiet (particularly in Bang Niang), with plenty of rocky sections full of crabs and nice spots to watch the sunset. There’s also plenty to see in the area without going on day trips, like the Khaolak-Lumru National Park office, where I did a 2km ‘Nature Trail’ walk through the edge of the rainforest around the headland. It was very pleasant, especially as it ended in a gorgeous sandy cove, and the information boards displayed some of the finest examples of Google Translate English I’ve ever seen. My favourite was;

The Stone subside from the nature is creating on large -sized , give a human has admired the miracle .. there is character figure resembles with human footprint s is compared as remind to give person visit the  national park realizes always that, ” we will abandon especial the footprints and pick the photograph get back only “.

It made me want to learn Thai, just so I could give them a proper translation that actually made a bit of sense.

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In Bang Niang there was a night market held every other evening, with pop-up bars, clothes and gift stalls and excellent street food. Also in Bang Niang is the Tsunami Museum next to Boat 813, a police boat which was patrolling when the tsunami hit and ended up several kilometres inland on the other side of the highway, and was left there as a simple but effective memorial. Along with many places in this part of the world, the Khao Lak area was particularly badly hit by the tsunami on 26 December 2004 with at least 4,000 people killed. At it’s highest the wave in Khao Lak was approximately 14 metres high, around the height of a four storey building, of which there are approximately zero in Khao Lak. Even at the road a kilometre or more inland, the water level reached 3 metres, and the whole beach-front and a lot of the inland buildings were levelled. There was no warning system in place and many of the people who survived did so by sheer luck; luck that they weren’t knocked out by debris, that the sea spat them out above the surface before they drowned, that they found something to hang onto. It was very sobering and, me being me, I left the museum in floods of tears, looking like a crazy person.

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Boat 813

A brief stop in Bangkok

The Myawaddy-Mae Sot border point is one of a handful of border crossings between Thailand and Myanamr that were opened to Westerners in 2013. In this part of the country a natural frontier is formed by the Moei or Thaunggin (in Thai and Burmese respectively) river, and travellers cross the cutesily named Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge.

After a mildly terrifying motorbike taxi ride from the Myawaddy bus station to the border, I found my self at the Myanmar immigration point. An official ushered me past the queues to the ‘Foreigner Departure Office’, where I met the only two other Westerners I would encounter here. I filled out a form, got my stamps and had my picture taken, and was sent on my way to cross the bridge to the Thai immigration point on the other side. Again I was ushered past the queues to the Foreigners’ desk, filled out a couple of forms, got a stamp and strode through. The whole process took about 20 minutes, even including the time it took to help an illiterate Burmese man write out his passport information, and everyone was incredibly helpful and friendly.

After another hair-raising motorbike taxi ride to Mae Sot bus station, I got on my bus an hour later (more gold stars for me) and began the second leg of my journey to Bangkok. Although the landscape was similar, the difference between the two countries was immediately noticeable, from the wide, well-maintained roads, to the warehouse shops and Tesco Lotuses. I dozed through the rest of the journey and arrived in Bangkok at 7:30pm, got ripped off for a taxi and arrived at the Udee Hostel exhausted and ready for bed. It was clean and slightly clinical with a relaxed, quiet crowd, which was perfect for my walking zombie state at that point, and I had a great night’s sleep. There was plenty of information, the staff were very helpful, and although it was a half-hour drive from the city centre, it was very well placed for the Mo Chit bus station and the Chatuchak Weekend Market, which I visited the next morning.

One of the biggest markets in the world, you really can get pretty much anything you can think of, from teenage fashion, antiques and artificial flowers, to street food, foot massages and silks, to pet squirrels, modern art and gigantic bronze statues. And an entire shop devoted to outfits for your dog. I think my favourite stalls were the trendy young fashion vendors with bizarre English names like ‘Because Dog’ and ‘BackHorseMarking’, but all of the stalls were different and fascinating. It was great for people-watching too, and for my first Thai food experience, the street food was fantastic. After a few hours wandering around I decided to get a foot massage, partly to kill some time, partly because my feet really did hurt, and partly because I’d never had one. I’m not generally a big fan of people touching my feet, or of massages in general, but I thought I might as well do it in a place where I wouldn’t understand the local language for ‘dear God this woman’s feet are disgusting’. Like the manicures and other physical treatments I’ve had before, I found it simultaneously relaxing and uncomfortable, tickly and painful, therapeutic and excruciating. She used her steel fingers, her elbows and a wooden poking device that looked like a big chopstick and felt like an instrument of torture, but my feet and legs did feel a hell of a lot better afterwards.

After the market I wandered around around Chatuchak Park before heading back to the hostel to pick up my bag and get a taxi to the train station. After getting a taxi all by myself (yet another gold star) I got my first and only brief look at the centre of Bangkok. Modern as Yangon may be compared to the rest of Myanmar, it’s still a backwater compared to Bangkok. It was hectic and gridlocked, but also clean and orderly in its own way, and I would’ve liked to have had more time there to explore. But I was also keen to get to the beach.

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Hua Lumphong Station

 

Hua Lumphong Railway Station was a dream to navigate with a cheap and cheerful food court and platform information in English. I boarded my train to Surat Thani and found my seat in the second class sleeper carriage, which was arranged in pairs of facing seats either side of the aisle. I had a nice if rather odd dinner (whoever thought of putting grapes in a curry was not onto something), and chatted to my neighbours, who were Italian and British and heading to Ko Tao off the east coast. After dinner the train attendants came round and made up the bunks and I had the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had on a train. I didn’t think I was going to die of hyperthermia (like in Myanmar) or from the train itself falling apart (like in Russia) and I had a real horizontal bed (unlike in Canada). Total luxury.

By the time I had woken up, the scenery had changed to lush, tropical green, with rubber plantations and dense forests. When I got off the train at Surat Thani I was prepared to work out how to get the bus, clutching my travel voucher, but there was no need – I was firmly on the tourist trail now, and the platform was full of stewards from the various bus companies, directing passengers in perfect English. Surat Thani is the transfer point for rail travellers coming from Bangkok to get to Phuket, Krabi and the Andaman Coast, and the journey is much more popular than I’d appreciated. Not that I minded – it’s great that other people share my enthusiasm for rail travel, and an easy, straightforward transfer at 7:30am is never something to be sniffed at.

I had booked a ticket for the four-hour bus journey south-west to Phuket Town bus station, where I would buy a ticket for the two-hour journey up the coast to Khao Lak, not realising that it’s possible and much quicker to get a bus from Surat Thani straight to Khao Lak. But I was in no rush and it allowed me to have a brief look at Phuket before my stay there a few weeks later. Before my trip I had been vaguely aware that Phuket was an island, and thought of it in a non-specific way as a small place – busy and developed with several beaches, but basically a town, which would be easy to get in and out of. Not true. It’s a massive island covering 220 square miles, half as big again as the Isle of Wight, and once we were on the island it took a good hour of inland driving to get to Phuket Town bus station, which I then repeated on the second bus to go back out again. But still, no rush. The second hour of my journey to Khao Lak was very scenic, however, and much quieter, with a few glimpses of the sea, and I arrived at my hostel in the early afternoon, ready for a shower and a relaxing beach break.